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Obama Rams the Issue of Racial Profiling Back Onto the Nation’s Table

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

President Obama movingly spoke of the “pain” most African Americans felt at the acquittal of George Zimmerman.

But Obama didn’t speak solely because he felt obliged to make a generic observation about the anger of most blacks toward the verdict, or even out of remembrance of the fight he led in the Illinois Legislature more than a decade ago to get a bill passed that put law enforcement on notice that racial profiling won’t be tolerated.

He spoke from a well-documented personal experience. He bluntly noted in his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, that he was not always a high-profile, respected and acclaimed public official, and there was a time in the not-so-distant past that he suffered, as he put it, “the litany” of slights and abuses that ranged the gamut. He ticked them off quickly: security guards tailing him as he shopped in department stores, white couples who tossed him their car keys as he stood outside a restaurant waiting for the valet and police cars pulling him over for no apparent reason.

A year after Obama’s election in 2008, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) cracked that if Obama, that is President Obama, strolled through East Harlem at nightfall sans suit, presidential entourage and limo, he could be shaken down, spread-eagled and cuffed.

Rangel took much heat for a seemingly impertinent and ridiculous quip and walked it back — but as Obama now strongly hints, Rangel wasn’t too far off the mark in zeroing in on the endemic problem of racial profiling. Now that Obama has used the Zimmerman acquittal as the backdrop to make his toughest and strongest frontal address to date on racial profiling, this further confirms that Rangel may indeed have been onto something.

Much of law enforcement, a wide segment of the public and even some blacks vehemently deny that black men are systematically targeted for stop, search and humiliation by cops just because they’re black.

One Sanford police officer who took the stand as a prosecution witness during the Zimmerman trial was no exception to the rule. He flatly said that he didn’t think that Zimmerman profiled Martin. Though he slightly walked it back under further questioning, he was credible because much of law enforcement has denied that profiling exists. The Zimmerman jurors obviously didn’t disagree with that view.

This is not an academic point. The refusal to admit that racial profiling exists, not to mention the endless columns by conservatives that call racial profiling a flat-out myth, has done much to torpedo nearly every effort by local and national civil rights and civil liberties groups to get law enforcement and federal agencies not only to admit that racial profiling happens but to do something about it.

A perennial federal bill served up by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) to get federal agencies to collect statistics and do reports on racial profiling hasn’t gotten to first base.

The surging number of blacks in America’s jails and prisons seems to reinforce the perception that crime and violence in America invariably comes with a young, black, male face. And it doesn’t much matter how prominent, wealthy or celebrated the black person is.

Others go much further than calling it simply a case of fanning racial stereotypes and negative typecasting; they say that good police work is about the business of catching criminals and reducing crime. And if more black men are stopped in poor black neighborhoods or in any other neighborhood, it’s not because they’re black but because they commit more crimes.

This is bogus on two grounds. In the overwhelming majority of stops of black men by police under stop-and-frisk tactics in New York and other cities, blacks are not arrested or charged with any crime. Also, studies have found that blacks are stopped in disproportionate numbers in predominantly white neighborhoods with the same result. They are not arrested or charged with any crime.

Obama’s list of the ways blacks are profiled follows closely on the heels of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s blunt charge in his address at the recent NAACP convention that he too believes he has been racially profiled in years past.

Now that two of America’s most powerful and recognized officials are saying the same thing about profiling, they’ve rammed the issue back on the nation’s table, where it never should have left.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.